Kerry Bobbins, Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), South Africa

Planning for the needs of both society and the environment is becoming more and more prevalent as the impacts of urbanisation, development and resource extraction influence the health of citizens and vulnerability of cities. From as early as the 1990s, knowledge on the benefits of ecosystem services (the services provided naturally by ecological systems and natural features such as trees, parks and open space) has encouraged the uptake of natural features in urban planning initiatives as a way to build urban centres that develop sustainably and are more resilient to the effects of natural disasters (Hansen et al., 2015). These studies have contributed to informing a growing discourse on ecosystem based management and how the impacts of rapid urbanisation and development can be curbed through using an ecosystem services based approach to infrastructure and service provision. As the scales (spatial and temporal) of ecological processes are not well aligned with existing monitoring and decision-making structures used at the local level, including ecosystem services into the planning and management processes of cities is a complex and challenging task (Haase et al., 2014).

Alluded to by Haase et al., (2014), referencing Knapp et al., (2008) and Nevens et al., (2013), the city is a laboratory – a place that is fertile with diversity from a variety of sectors such as cultural, social, spatial, temporal, institutional and biological – where ideas can be tested and piloted. While urban centres present a prime canvas for testing the opportunities and barriers to integrating the concept of ecosystem service based management into planning processes, this opportunity is rarely used. This is because the concept of ecosystem services cannot be easily defined and disseminated amongst institutional stakeholders and thus often fails to gain recognition or financing, despite its intrinsic benefits for society and the environment. The implementation of green agendas such as green infrastructure and green growth are also tightly wrapped up in a cloak of uncertainty, complexity and governance concerns. This has created a barrier to the testing and piloting of alternative planning and management strategies in the city laboratory. Due to the opaque understanding of nature, ecological systems are not being incorporated into existing planning structures.

Traditional planning structures thrive on surety, something that is difficult to achieve when including naturally complex systems into infrastructure plans and mandates. Therefore, to begin a process of impacting decision-making, the concept of ecosystem service based planning must leap from academia to practice (Hansen et al., 2015). To make this leap, shifts need to take place in existing planning paradigms towards more inter-disciplinary planning (ibid.). At this interface, the literary foundations on the use of ecosystem services in urban planning places a large focus on sparking a change through adequate planning and management, but do not necessarily provide the information required by authorities and urban stakeholders to do so. Reiterated by Haase et al. (2014), this is a common finding across ecosystem services literature, with only a few of these studies focusing on the requirements of professionals in developed countries.

The following two examples illustrate some of the challenges of traversing the gap in the governance of ecosystem services to support urban sustainability. In Berlin, Germany, for example, there has been a shift towards finding more efficient ways of providing and promoting access to infrastructure and services after the German Democratic Republic (GDR/East Germany) joined the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG/West Germany) in 1990. Supported by a formal landscape planning policy and informal environmental planning tools, which touch on the value of ecosystems, there is a large value placed on green spaces in the city for supporting healthy living spaces and increasing quality of life. In utilities for example, there has been a dramatic shift in stormwater planning to include low impact development (LID), which follows similar principles to a green infrastructure planning approach. LID stormwater interventions include green roofs, porous pavements, swales, rain gardens and rainwater harvesting. This shift has been supported by inventory tools such as the Green Space Information System (GRIS) and the FIS-Broker that records many, if not all, of the natural features of the city.  The real question here is given the success of LID practices for curbing stormwater generation, why has this approach not been used to meet the demand for infrastructure and services in other sectors such as transport and mobility? When paired with the concept of ecosystem services, this approach can be up-scaled to meet a wide variety of urban developmental agendas in the city.

In a second example, attempts to guide the uptake of a green infrastructure approach in cities in South Africa has shown that the concept of ecosystem services has gained very little traction and has not created a long term change in infrastructure provision and maintenance. This gap is largely related to the way ecosystem services are quantified and the data available to inform evidence based decision making. In an attempt to bridge this gap, financial valuation data for the City of Cape Town and the City of Johannesburg have been generated. In Cape Town, the study by De Wit et al., (2009) was used to assign a Rand value (ZAR) to natural capital in the city. It was estimated that Cape Town’s environmental assets could be valued at R43 – R82 billion (ZAR), and these assets provided a benefit of between R2 – R6 billion (ZAR) per annum based on 2009 price estimates (De Witt et al., 2009, pviii). Despite large financial figures being calculated for the natural capital in Cape Town, it was unsuccessful in outlining how this figure could be used to inform planning (Cartwright & Oeloffse, 2014). The full study on the value of the City of Cape Town’s natural assets can be found here: A Business Case for the Environment in the City of Cape Town (De Wit et al., 2009).

The Gauteng City-Region Observatory commissioned a study to value natural capital in the City of Johannesburg using apportioned financial values calculated for green feature in the Cape Town by Turpie et al., (2001). Indicative present values were calculated at a 4% discount rate and it was found that the total value of open spaces in the City of Johannesburg ranged between R966 million and R1,9 billion based on 2013 price estimates (ZAR). A similar response to this valuation exercise (as found in the City of Cape Town) meant that there was little change in the way that planning was executed at the level of municipal government. More on this study can be found in the report: The State of Green Infrastructure in the Gauteng City-Region by Schaffler et al., (2013).

Undoubtedly, ecosystem services form a fundamental part of the planning and management of sustainable cities of the future. This is because they provide a variety of functions that reduce impacts on the environment, and can complement traditional approaches in providing services and infrastructure that are in limited supply. It can also assist cities to mitigate or adapt to the effects of climate change. However, serving as a binding constraint to the adequate planning and management of ecosystem services in urban centres, are governance concerns. Understanding the balance between the governance requirements and the availability and use of practical tools for informing an ecosystem services planning approach is a critical determinant for informing the shift in planning and urban design. The notion of a city laboratory is therefore critical for testing ways to harness the functioning of ecosystems to inform urban-based planning. Serving to not only test technical solutions for meeting the site-specific requirements for infrastructure and service delivery, they also provides an incubator to allow for creating an evidence base to overcome governance norms that currently restrict the uptake of alternative planning programmes such as those framed by ecosystem services.


Cartwright, A. & Oeloffse, G. (2014). Scoping a process for conducting ecosystem services valuation as part of a green infrastructure plan for the Gauteng City-Region, Cape Town: Unpublished expert commissioned work completed for the Gauteng City – Region Observatory.

De Wit, M., Van Zyl, H., Crookes, D., Blignaut, J., Jayiya, T., Goiset, V. & Mahumani, B. (2009) Investing in Natural assets. A Business Case for the Environment in the City of Cape Town. Report for the City of Cape Town’s ERM Department. Retrieved from: https://www.capetown.gov.za/en/EnvironmentalResourceManagement/publications/Documents/EnvResEconomics-Final_Report_2009-08-18.pdf.

Haase, D., Frantzeskaki, N., and Elmqvist, T. (2014). Ecosystem services in landscapes: Practical Applications and Governance Implications. AMBIO, 43:407 -412.

Hansen, R., Frantzeskaki, N., McPerson, T., Rall., Kabisch, N., Kaczorowska, A., Kain, J-H., Artmann, M. & Pauliet, S. (2015). The uptake of the ecosystem services concept in planning discourses of European and American Cities. Ecosystem Services, 12: 228 – 246.

Knapp, S., Kuhn, I., Mosbrugger, V. & Klotz, S. (2008). Do protected areas in urban and rural landscapes differ in species diversity?. Biodiversity and Conservation, 17: 1595 – 1612.

Nevins, F., Frantzeskaki, D., Loorbach, D. and Gorissen, L. (2013). Urban transition labs: Co-creating transformative action for sustainable cities. Journal of Cleaner Production, 50: 111 – 122.

Schäffler, A., Christopher, N., Bobbins, K., Otto, E., Nhlozi, M., de Wit, M., van Zyl, H., Crookes, D., Gotz, G., Trangoš, G., Wray, C. & Phasha, P. (2013). State of Green Infrastructure in the Gauteng City-Region (GCRO Report). Gauteng City-Region Observatory. Retrieved from: http://www.gcro.ac.za/report/state-green-infrastructure-gcr.

Turpie, J., Joubert,  A., Van Zyl, H., Harding, B. & Leiman, A. (2001). Valuation of Open Space in the Cape Metropolitan Area. Report to the City of Cape Town.



Author Biography

Kerry Bobbins is a researcher at the Gauteng City-Region Observatory, a partnership between the University of Johannesburg, the University of the Witwatersrand, Gauteng Provincial Government and organised local government, South Africa. She graduated from Rhodes University with a MSc in Geography and has completed additional masters’ courses in International Environmental Policy and Environment and Development at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Kerry’s academic interests are positioned between ecological and policy dynamics, in particular, how ecological considerations are factored into political economic decision-making. While at the GCRO, Kerry has been a key contributor to research around valuing green assets and infrastructure in the Gauteng City – Region (GCR) and the investigation of the impacts of GCR’s mining legacy on the environment. Kerry’s research interests include the valuation of environmental infrastructure in urban and non-urban landscapes, provisioning of ecosystem goods and services, mining impacts on the environment and landscape restoration.

Contact email: kerry.bobbins@gcro.ac.za


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Dialogues of sustainable urbanisation: Social science research and transitions to urban contexts Copyright © 2015 by Kerry Bobbins, Gauteng City-Region Observatory (GCRO), South Africa is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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